Understand to be Understood
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 17, 2006
I know I've had a powerful theatre experience when I walk out of a show and somehow the world feels different. At its best, theatre helps me see the world through another person's eyes and better understand their perspective. When I left Understand to be Understood from Find Your Light, a theatre outreach program for teens living in New York City's shelter system, I felt like an ice cold glass of water had just been thrown in my face. I walked through Greenwich Village afterwards with a heightened awareness of all underprivileged young people I pass on the streets every day. It seems impossible not to be shaken by the experience of this show.
Inspired by a cast member who was held at gunpoint at her school, and created by nine teenagers from two shelters, the play looks at the role of metal detectors, security guards, and violence in city schools. Do security guards actually protect the students, or do they have the effect of turning schools into prisons and students into criminals? The drama shows how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves and urges us to consider what possibility for advancement exists for this population. In the case of these nine individuals, the play's the thing—at least as the means to consider a better world for themselves.
The ensemble-created piece takes us through a day in the life of a New York public high school. We first meet a group of students as they wait in the long, slow line to go through a security check before they are admitted into their own school. Already, tensions are brewing between the students and authorities and, more dangerously, among each other. We follow the group through the day—in class, the lunchroom, the hallways between class, and after school, as the conflicts escalate, violence explodes, and lives are changed. Periodically along the way, the action freezes and the young actors step out of the story, directly addressing the audience, revealing their feelings and insights. These from-the-heart soliloquies give voice to frustration, rage, and sorrow, but also express their yearning for a different, more supportive environment.
The writing and performances are unpolished—this is rough theatre in every way. Yet the scope of its vision is Shakespearean: the drama offers both a wide-angle view of a broken-down political-social system, and individual close-ups of people caught in this system. When the story reached its truly tragic climax, I experienced the intense emotional response to onstage events that I always think I should have when Hamlet dies.
Director/producer Juliet Avila provides the strong leadership and also provides the space and respect these young performers need to express themselves so honestly. Kudos to Mariam Ajose, Dwayne Andrews, Diderot Jean Baptiste, Juget Benjamin, Jahleese Ladson, Rayshawn Lee, Keninya Odems and Kennyetta Odems for their courage, commitment (they spent over a year creating the piece), and generosity in sharing themselves. They form a supportive ensemble together, which makes me reluctant to single out an individual performance. But, Rayshawn Lee's performance as P. Killah, the raging gangster who is both perpetrator and victim of the violence, truly stands out for its powerful stage presence and vulnerability.
This is not a feel-good piece, but a provocative call-to-action to find a solution to the violent system that entraps so many youth within this population. The first step is to learn to understand the experience of other people, and the play's great power is the way it raises understanding in its audience.